Veterinary technician and Basset Hound

In my hectic fledgeling days as a companion animal veterinarian in the early 1980s, my duties ran from the miraculous to the mundane. For hours in the morning, I’d be in the exam room diagnosing or treating pets; in the early afternoon, I would spend time in the surgery room doing a variety of things from spays and neuters to complicated orthopedic surgeries. In between, I would scramble to find a moment to look up a difficult case in my textbooks, eat lunch and do callbacks.

There were so many more things that had to be done, too: taking a pet’s vital signs, drawing blood for tests, putting in catheters, giving medications, taking and processing radiographs, changing bandages — even cleaning pets’ teeth. I was chronically rushed and not able to spend as much time as I would have liked with many patients and pet owners.

Fortunately, in the early ’90s, veterinary medicine started welcoming licensed, registered and certified veterinary technicians (LVTs, CVTs and RVTs) to assist in caring for patients. That change made my days much less hectic and dramatically increased the quality of care I could provide. Today, the label is changing — they are veterinary nurses, not vet techs — but the work they do is still incredibly important to the patients and practices they serve.

What Veterinary Nurses Do — and Why They Are So Important

When I’m seeing patients at North Idaho Animal Hospital, I work with a wonderful veterinary nurse named Michelle. Like tens of thousands of veterinary nurses nationwide, Michelle is more than just another set of hands to fill in paperwork, restrain a pet during an exam, or fetch a vaccine or medication; she brings another set of senses and skills to the process of a pet going from the living room at home to the exam room and back home. She often feels a lump I missed, notices extra eyelashes that are causing discomfort or remembers another patient in the past whose symptoms looked very similar. Michelle and I typically discuss cases right in front of the pet owner. And far from making me, the veterinarian, look less smart and capable, her expertise complements my knowledge, experience and authority, and raises the pet owner’s confidence in the quality of the care we are providing.

Today’s nurses do a significant amount to help care for your pets. They can do physical exams; assess body and dental scoring; draw blood; place catheters; administer some vaccines, fluids and medications; monitor anesthesia; take radiographs or use an ultrasound; do laser treatments and physical therapy; consult with pet owners about some medical issues; console grieving clients; make product and service recommendations — the list goes on and on. There are also technician specialists just like there are veterinary specialists. There are dental techs, emergency and critical care techs, behavior techs, nutrition techs, etc. The law requires that these important duties be done under the direct supervision of a licensed veterinarian and that only a licensed veterinarian can diagnose, prescribe and do surgery. But without our nursing staff, we would be scrambling to get it all done and done well.

Our nurses are also frequently the best line of communication between the pet owner and the veterinarian. Often, pet owners will be more comfortable speaking the unvarnished truth to our nurses, especially if they are admitting to a shortfall in their own care. A good veterinary nurse will have a close professional and often personal relationship with pet owners — in fact, some pet owners feel closer to the nurses than to the vet. Many veterinary nurses make themselves available to talk or communicate with pet owners via text, email or social media, and this can make the nurse a pet owner’s go-to person for basic questions about their pet.

After 30-plus years of practice, I can honestly say that your pet is receiving exponentially better care today than he would have three decades ago. We have better diagnostic, safety monitoring and dental equipment; safer anesthetics; more potent antibiotics, analgesics and other drugs; safer and more powerful vaccines and parasite control products — the list of improvements goes on.

But the single biggest and most important advance I can point to is the addition of veterinary nurses in our practices. These days, you and your pet benefit from Vet Med 2.0, where two people work together. And that’s a win for everyone.

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